US Encouraged by Israeli Changes to Plans for Rafah Operation

(Bloomberg) -- The US has softened its earlier resistance to a broader Israeli military operation in Rafah following efforts by Israel to reduce the civilian toll of the assault, a US official said.

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The shift followed weeks of warnings by President Joe Biden that a full-scale attack on the Gaza Strip border city where hundreds of thousands have taken shelter would prompt the US to suspend the transfer of offensive weapons to Israel.

But when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and other top White House aides met with senior Israeli officials in recent days, they found that Israel had incorporated US humanitarian concerns into their plans, the US official said, requesting anonymity to discuss matters that aren’t public. The departure of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from Rafah in recent weeks also helped allay concerns about the civilian toll of an assault, the official said.

Any sustained incursion is still likely to pose a political challenge for Biden, who has come under fire from progressives in his own party for his steadfast support of Israel despite mounting civilian casualties in Gaza. Earlier this month, Biden said in an interview with CNN that he would cut off the shipment of offensive weapons including artillery shells if Israel proceeded with an operation in the city, where Palestinian refugees have gathered following sustained bombing in other areas of Gaza.

Read more: Biden Warns He’d Delay More Weapons If Israel Attacks Rafah

The official did not detail the extent of Israeli operations that would be acceptable to the White House, and Biden has already said he was not concerned by limited efforts on the outskirts of the city. Ultimately, the US would evaluate any operation on the way it was carried out and Washington does not greenlight Israeli military actions, the official said.

Earlier Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted the “pretty large exodus of people from Rafah” but said the US remained “very concerned about any major military operation and the impact it would have on the remaining population, given the dense urban environment in Rafah.”

Sullivan met Monday with Israeli officials, including opposition leader Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Chief of Defense Herzi Halevi, following a series of discussions with Arab leaders over the weekend. The White House said at the time that Gallant and Halevi briefed the US delegation on “new alternative approaches to defeating Hamas in Rafah to address the concerns that have been expressed by the U.S. side.”

The Israeli and US sides also discussed Sullivan’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the weekend, where the two sides talked about a sweeping Middle East deal that would see Saudi Arabia formally recognize Israel and provide economic assistance to Palestinians, in exchange for US security guarantees and Israel recognizing a credible pathway toward a Palestinian state.

US and Saudi negotiators have nearly finalized the bilateral portion of the package, which also includes a civil nuclear cooperation and economic element, the official said. But an overall deal would need to wait for the current crisis in Gaza to recede and for Israeli leaders to come to an acceptable agreement on a pathway for the Palestinians, the official acknowledged.

Discussions between the US and Israel also included a technical discussion of efforts to speed humanitarian aid into Gaza, as well as plans to provide essential services and basic security after the end of Israel’s campaign against Hamas.

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